What happens when a cataclysm brings about the loss of a city’s populations and of its historic buildings and neighbourhoods? Can they be rebuilt in reality, or refound in fragments of memory, in art, in history, in literature, in documentation? There is something strangely unsettling about reproductions of historical realities, and the relationship of disappeared history to current day realities. Pippa Goldschmidt examines the case with the help of Freud’s notion of the Uncanny.
In Freud’s 1919 essay about the uncanny, he uses as an example of this phenomenon his experience of repeatedly getting lost while walking through ‘the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy’ so that he always, however hard he tries to avoid it, ends up in the district where ‘nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses’. The uncanny aspect of this emerges from the ‘unintended recurrence’ of his actions and a creeping sense that he is not fully in control of his own movements; something unseen, below the surface of the city, is directing him.
The uncanny started life in German as das Unheimlich. Freud explains this feeling of unease as due to something long buried or suppressed and now come to light; what was once familiar has become strange. Last year, when I was still living in my adopted home town of Edinburgh I spent time working on the uncanny. Pretty soon my surroundings started to take on some of the attributes that I was reading and writing about; I kept noticing how the streets of the Old Town criss-cross each other at different levels so that it’s possible to enter a building such as the National Library on one level (George IV Bridge) and leave it on another (Cowgate). The Old Town is such an obviously architectural analogy of the buried subconscious with its hidden buildings and convoluted links between places that seem straightforward when mapped on a two-dimensional plane of paper but that provoke uncertainty when walked. All those narrow vennels and steep stairs. All the more so in opposition to the New Town, that apotheosis of urban town planning. In the New Town what you see is what you get, a district obviously designed with the help of geometrical aids; a ruler, a set square, a compass.
I digress. The uncanny will do that to you. It obviously did to Freud, whose essay attempts an exhaustive study of the phenomenon but quickly gets side-tracked in a comparison of equivalent words in different languages, before analysing E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story ‘The Sandman’ along with another short story that he once read and can’t remember the name of. His discussions of these fictional evocations of the uncanny treat them as if they were like his case studies; he doesn’t bother to distinguish between the real and the not-real, knowing that this distinction counts for little. When you think you’ve succeeded in identifying the uncanny you discover that it has slipped away. Perhaps that is why we’re both drawn to it and repelled by it, it reminds us of our ultimately futile attempts to classify everything in our world, including ourselves.
I originally wanted to start this essay with a description of my move from Edinburgh to Frankfurt at the start of 2020. After I acquired German citizenship, I decided to live in the country – and the city – where my grandfather had grown up. That country is not the same one from which my grandfather fled in 1937. It has changed, as has our family, I am the second generation to be born in England and I wanted to know what it would feel like to go to Germany. Would I feel connected, or estranged? Who was I here, a local or a stranger? How should I myself be classified?
According to various guides to the city, Frankfurt was or is the home of:
Because I arrive there just a few steps ahead of the Corona virus and lockdown, my first rented flat in the inner city district of Bockenheim proves to be far too small for home-working. I go flat-hunting, becoming used to navigating the transport system in which so many station names, and corresponding districts, seem to end in heim. Bornheim, Eschersheim, Ginnheim, Heddernheim, Rodesheim, Schwanheim and so on.
Heim = home. All these districts are labelled different types of home. During lockdown I’m allowed to go out for exercise around Bockenheim, walking around the nearby park, and the streets. But the city itself starts to separate from me in the way that a single cell divides into two, stretching and elongating until the walls that contain it can no longer cope with the new reality. I’m aware of the process of this separation, even as it’s happening. The city is becoming dreamlike, its topology mutating in my mind as I attempt to remember exactly where I have been, what I have learnt.
One day I need to take the tram from Bockenheim, but when I step out into the street it’s eerily quiet, even by lockdown standards. In the distance a police car. When I get nearer I see more police cars and vans blocking the main road that runs past the Messe (the huge exhibition hall that hosts the Frankfurt Book Fair, amongst other events) and to the Hauptbahnhof. No people apart from police officers, and no trams. As I approach a policeman he holds up his hand to stop me coming any nearer.
Warum? I ask. Why?
Diese Straße ist gesperrt, he tells me. This road is blocked.
Oh. I look up and down the empty streets reduced to road signs, traffic lights, electric wires. A few police cars, flashing blue. No other pedestrians apart from me. Eerie, post-apocalyptic city. This is the second act of the horror film, after the virus has mutated to a more virulent strain.
Was ist passiert? What has happened?
‘They have found a Second World War bomb,’ he switches into English to tell me this. I wonder if this is a subconscious urge to remind me exactly who was – or still is – responsible for this bomb.
‘Ah. Ok. Thank you!’ There is another pause while I try to think of something intelligent to say, something that acknowledges the immense history of which the bomb is a remnant, before I give up and go back to the flat.
I already know that this isn’t an isolated incident. In fact it’s common, several thousand WWII bombs are discovered in Germany each year, regularly requiring mass evacuations. (This time a few thousand people had to leave their homes overnight.) It’s a reminder that the local city streets are still threatened by a long-ago war. And how long the delayed consequences of a single action can last, a decision to flick a switch in a plane more than 75 years ago is only now revealed.
A few weeks later, when lockdown is lifted, and life starts to open outwards again like a body being freed from a corset, I visit the Judengasse Museum in the east of the city. This museum is located underneath one of the municipal buildings, where the preserved remains of the ghetto can be viewed.
The first ghetto to be built in Europe functioned a bit like an open prison. People would have been allowed to leave during the daytime but the gates locked them inside at night, on Sundays and on Christian holidays, preventing them from entering the city. I think of ghettos as being essentially medieval but this one persisted into modernity; Frankfurt forced its Jewish inhabitants to live in the ghetto until 1811.
The entrance to the museum is on the ground floor and then I’m directed down a flight of stairs, and among chest-high remains of brick walls with signs telling me what I’m looking at; kitchens, ritual baths, front doors, lanes. I am walking inside the houses and also between them, and not able to tell the difference between interiors and exteriors, all the while remaining underneath a large, modern office block. A woman sits on a stool in the corner keeping an eye on me, I am the only visitor. She does not say anything.
The exhibition states that the remains of the ghetto were first uncovered during building works in the 1980s when the municipal department above me was being built. The city Government wanted to demolish these inconvenient remains, but people protested. A photo shows people standing next to a building site waving banners, the caption says that this was the first time German people had spoken out publicly in support of Jewish artefacts. Nevertheless, the city pressed ahead with the construction work. All but a small proportion of the remains were demolished, and what is now visible in the museum was actually removed during the building work and put back in place afterwards. So, what I’m looking at is a sort of reconstruction.
It is hushed and gloomy in this space that is both outside and inside. To the north of the Judengasse museum a small segment of the city wall still stands, the last bit of the wall that once defined the ghetto. Beyond it I find a quiet narrow residential street, a bookshop, a Spanish tapas bar, a Greek cafe. This street is curved such that when I stand in the middle of it I can’t see either end. It could go on for ever.
Not many tourists come to see the city wall and stand on an old ghetto. They tend to walk around the centre of the old city, gazing at the Römer, the city’s town hall, and the other picturesque houses. All reconstructed, of course. Much of the city centre, including all of the famous medieval buildings, was destroyed in the Allied bombing raids of 1945. Is the building in the background of my selfie a doppelganger of the earlier one? Perhaps the dates on foundation stones here should refer to a will, a desire to construct rather than the physical reality. Buildings that are intended to look as if they date from different eras separated by hundreds of years were actually constructed at the same time. The realisation of this confounds our sense of history and makes us question our ability to understand our surroundings.
One of the enduring symbols that has arisen from the devastated city-scapes of postwar Germany is that of the Trümmerfrauen, the rubble-women. Because so many men were dead or imprisoned in POW camps, it was left to the women to sort out the entropic chaos. The occupying Allied forces put the women to work, and they made human chains as they sifted through the rubble, sorting the towering mounds of smashed bricks, stones and tiles. Photos of these women show them smiling at the camera, their hair protected by improvised turbans from the dust and dirt. After the war, the Trümmerfrauen were heroised in both East and West Germany. In the East they were seen as examples of the power of collective working, in the West they were presented as the personification of a country able to put itself to rights by simply getting on with the job of tidying up. This ability to reconstruct a physical order was clearly a desire to imply a reinstatement of moral order, but perhaps the Römer is capable of standing for both. In 1963-65 it was the venue for the first trials of Nazis to be instigated and arranged by the Germans themselves, rather than by the occupying forces.
Frankfurt was unusual in that the postwar city government decided not to try and re-use the rubble itself in the rebuilding of the city, rather it took a pragmatic decision to pulverise it before mixing the resulting powder with cement, to make a building medium that could be used quickly and easily in the construction of desperately needed housing. The remaining unused rubble was transported to the Stadtwald, the city forest, where it was heaped into mounds and covered with soil.
My new, larger, flat is on the edge of this forest and I go walking there most days. In August I see groups of soldiers hiking along the paths, sweating in their uniforms, the Bundeswehr are carrying out exercises here. Another bomb comes to life during this heat wave when it is ignited by a forest fire, and I listen to the sound of sirens amongst the trees.
The part of the forest that is nearest to my flat has a road running through it, leading to an apprentices’ college where teenagers are taught the skills needed for the building trade. I watch them dig foundations, build low-rise walls. At the end of their working day they amble off to more remote parts of the forest, the smell of their joints marking the paths. The college grounds contain neatly organised piles of bricks, perhaps this is where the ghosts of the Trümmerfrauen might feel at home.
The surface of the forest rises and falls. I walk over one of these hillocks, and look down. At my feet a flash of blue and white, a piece of china. Actually it’s two pieces that fit together, separated only by a thin strip of soil. Recognisably china from the early twentieth century, it must have been part of a consignment of rubble buried here and now risen to the surface. I take it home and position it on my desk. A fragment of something that wants to be seen.
Freud defines the uncanny as a dividing, a doubling, a recurring. Something that persists, something in the wrong place. But I like the china, I don’t particularly find it uncanny. Things need to rise to the surface, to tell their tales once again.
Back in the city, the banks stretch into the sky, far above the simulacrum of the old town. At night all you can see of these banks are the lights marking the tops of the skyscrapers. Money is weightless, shape shifting, flashes in electromagnetic pulses from building to building, its medium is the air. When I walk through the centre of town my body is filled with financial transactions.
Frankfurt’s ongoing reputation as the financial centre of Europe relies on all the banks based here, many of them originally founded by Jews in the nineteenth century. The schism of 1933-45 was only a hiccup in the relentless growth of wealth, the city still benefits from Jews having lived and worked hard here, in spite of their subsequent persecution and flight. Money moves at the speed of light and Einstein’s special theory of relativity tells us that at this speed, time is dilated so that there is no past or future, only an eternal present. Money has no memory and neither do Frankfurt’s banks.
Back home in Scotland I am so used to having to spell my surname that when I do so I automatically add an emphasis to the silent consonants; G-o-l-d-s-c-h-m-i-d-t. I am quite used to it being seen as unusual, being mispronounced as Goldsmith, Goldshit, Goldsmitz… I’m familiar with all the variations.
The name has its place in the category of foreign names. But here in Frankfurt it is local. I first encounter it on a monument in the local park in Bockenheim, then I see it inscribed on the Holocaust memorial outside the Judengasse Museum. There were Goldschmidts in Frankfurt all the way from the Middle Ages right up until the Third Reich, the name has come home. But people here say it slightly differently to me. I become aware of a shaping of the o, a refinement to the second syllable. The name has diverged, has mutated. I am forced to look at it anew. Now, every time I say it, I feel self-conscious, I wonder if people think that I can’t pronounce my own name. Not the strange, but the familiar become strange.
Where’s my grandfather in all of this? I track him down in the state archives where he has a file with his name on, Dr. jur. Ernst Goldschmidt in looped ink letters, dating from his decision to leave Frankfurt in 1937. The people fleeing Germany in the 1930s had to pay the Nazis for the privilege, a Government office assessed the value of the belongings that German Jews were taking with them when they left the country, so that those belongings could be taxed. The file has an unbelievably detailed inventory of my grandfather’s belongings, a snapshot of what his flat in Frankfurt must have contained. Typewritten lists of bed sheets, bath towels, even tea towels, and each sheet of paper initialled in blue pencil by an official. China, of course, a tea set with six cups and saucers, a dinner set of plates, soup bowls, serving platters. Coffee spoons. But the bulk of the inventory is a list of his books. Classical German texts. The collected works of Goethe. Books by Heine, that most famous example of the German-Jewish liberal tradition. More modern works by Dostoevsky and Kafka. Rather incongruously, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall. The books are a map of my grandfather’s mind, and now I can read what he read, walk where he walked. Share some of the same experiences.
There is nothing by Freud.
‘The Uncanny’, by S. Freud (1919) translated by J. and A. Strachey (1925, 1955)